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It almost seems as if there’s an asterisk behind this anniversary. Today marks 20 years since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
But this year we commemorate two decades since that fateful day while also coming to terms with our withdrawal from a nation we invaded shortly after the twin towers fell. A withdrawal that was, to put it mildly, bungled.
How does one reconcile the need for continued hope and healing after that day that changed everything forever with the anger and hopelessness so many are feeling after our botched exit from Afghanistan?
They do so by realizing that it wasn’t all for nothing. Through the noise of the political outcry, it’s the words of my cousin that provide some needed perspective to those wrestling with their feelings about our tumultuous evacuation.
“Nation-building is super vague. It’s very hard to do. Very few have ever succeeded.”
Sergeant First Class Mathew Carson was deployed to Afghanistan for just shy of one year in 2011. By then, the Taliban had been pushed out of power upon the initial invasion in October 2001, an elected Afghan government had been set up, and the U.S. strategy had shifted to one of counterinsurgency to fend off Taliban re-emergence while the new government struggled with weakness and corruption.
Long before Mat’s deployment began, it was evident that the war would never be won. With hindsight in the rearview mirror, he mused about how the development of a republic cannot succeed in a fractured tribal culture such as Afghanistan’s. Not when it relies on cooperation between ethnic groups who’ve fought for countless years and won’t let go of their own hatred for each other.
“When we decide to use force,” he said, “we need objectives. Nation-building is super vague. It’s very hard to do. Very few have ever succeeded.”
Regardless of when the U.S. left, be it after two months or two decades, the Taliban would have likely swept back into power upon our exit — even if our withdrawal was successfully executed.
However, Mat says, “there are small victories in there.”
We were in Afghanistan for 20 years. That makes for a long war, but it’s also a significant amount of time for its people to have experienced life without the Taliban. Because of the U.S. presence, an entire new generation of Afghans now exists which knows something other than brutal totalitarianism. Maybe one day they’ll fight to get that back.
My cousin, Mat Carson, joined the army at the age of 28. He’d grown restless and unsatisfied in a career that couldn’t challenge his extraordinary intellect. Inspired in part by his younger brother, then a Marine deploying to Kuwait, he enlisted “Because I wanted to do something important in my life.”
Many join the military motivated by patriotism and valor. They don’t stay under those same romantic illusions. They stay because it’s their career. Every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman who serves is there to do a job and do it well. While civilians stay glued to the media, obsessing over whether the last 20 years of war were a total waste, SFC Carson doesn’t have that problem.
“If all I did was protect people from being oppressed, at least for the year that I was in Afghanistan, then I don’t feel it was a waste of my time,” he says.
I’d call that doing something important.
Althea Cole is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org